Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2020

King Lear, an illustrated edition in modern prose (2006), adapted by Michael J Stewart

Years ago, when I was studying children’s literature at university, there was a fierce debate about Beatrix Potter’s classic stories, of which The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) is best known.  There were American educators who felt the language was too difficult for modern children and so had produced simplified versions, removing, for example, the soporific lettuces from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and the camomile tea from Peter Rabbit.  UK academics were appalled and went into battle over this, producing some amusing satires about the issue, but all in vain: the battle  was lost long ago and although the originals are still what we buy here in Australia, Disneyfication rules supreme.  As it does, alas, with all the fairy tales of our childhood.

I mention this because I stumbled on an illustrated adaption of King Lear at the library.  It has an arresting cover, and more superb illustrations inside.  The artist is Pavel Tartarnikov, and you can see some of his work hereKing Lear is my favourite Shakespeare play. It is the best example IMO of why we read Shakespeare: it enables us to learn about the unchanging flaws in human nature.  King Lear is about the vanity of men and their unwillingness to hear the truth if it doesn’t suit them; and it’s about their blindness towards their own folly until it’s too late.  It shows us how ambition makes men abandon the most basic of moral laws; and how the lust for money and power transcends the bonds of familial love (as financial elder abuse continues to prove today).

Romeo and Juliet by Arthur Rackham, 1909 (Wikipedia)

The Millennial Shakespeare series (which petered out after three editions) is modelled on Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which you can download from Gutenberg — though it doesn’t have the stunning illustrations that I remember from my girlhood. (They were probably by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), the prolific illustrator of children’s books who did as much to make me a reader as anyone else.) The 19th century authors of Tales from Shakespeare, published by the Juvenile Library of William Godwin, had the same intent as the earnest re-writers of Peter Rabbit: the desire to make the stories familiar to the young in accessible prose.

Tales from Shakespeare was first published in 1807 by brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb and became a staple of British childhood.  Beautiful illustrated hardback editions were bought and given to children for birthdays and Christmas, and Penguin was still publishing it in 2007. Charles wrote the tragedies and Mary wrote the comedies, and they omitted the history plays as too confusing, which is probably why their plots aren’t engraved on my brain the way the other plays are.  Apparently Mary didn’t get her name on the front cover until 1838.  (That, I think, would have been the least of her worries, considering her tragic life.)

As the Preface to the Millennium Shakespeare edition of King Lear explains, it is now more than two hundred years since that first attempt to interest and to educate young readers in the colossal scope and splendid diction of Shakespeare’s plays.  And as every secondary school English teacher knows, it gets harder and harder to include Shakespeare even in the Literature curriculum, never mind the Year 12 English that everyone has to pass to earn their certificate. Where people of my age began with Julius Caesar in Form II and progressed to Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, these days it’s apparently thought to be too hard and not relevant.

Stanley Stewart, a professor of English at the University of California presents the dilemma:

From the early seventeenth century to the beginning of the third millenium, Shakespeare’s literary reputation has flourished.  But the competition for the attention of children, who — the experts tell us — are all too often ‘reluctant readers’, is intense.  We don’t need to be hysterical readers of a canon inscribed in stone to want the next generation of students to know Shakespeare; but that knowledge must begin somewhere.  If an introduction to Shakespeare is to be successful, it is unlikely to be in the setting of an academic symposium.  Rather, children need a vehicle like Millennium Shakespeare to prepare them for the adult experience of discovering the work of what many consider the most gifted writer who ever lived. (Preface (p.xiii)

When The Offspring was at school (and he read his first Shakespeare in his early teens after seeing The Taming of the Shrew on TV) another form of Shakespeare began to emerge: cartoon editions (which retained the original language) and graphic novels, (about which I know nothing because I’ve never inspected one). Somebody gave him Macbeth (ISBN 1853046523, you can see it second-hand at Amazon) and I bought King Lear brought to life by Ian Pollock.  This series (published by Ravette UK) appears to have lapsed, but Manga editions seem to be doing very well.

So does anyone still read simplified prose versions?  Is the language of the Lamb edition too hard?

Lear, King of Britain, had three daughters: Goneril, wife to the Duke of Albany; Regan, wife to the Duke of Cornwall; and Cordelia, a young maid, for whose love the King of France and Duke of Burgundy were joint suitors, and were at this time making stay for that purpose in the court of Lear.

The old king, worn out with age and the fatigues of government, he being more than fourscore years old, determined to take no further part in state affairs, but to leave the management to younger strengths, that he might have time to prepare for death, which must at no long period ensue. With this intent he called his three daughters to him, to know from their own lips which of them loved him best, that he might part his kingdom among them in such proportions as their affection for him should seem to deserve.
Charles Lamb; Mary Lamb. Tales from Shakespeare Project Gutenberg #1286 (Kindle Locations 1733-1738).

This is the beginning of the Millennium Shakespeare edition.  (The initial letter T is beautifully illuminated in gold.) :

There comes a time in every man’s life when he feels he has achieved all he can.  That moment arrives even for great men, including those who were once mighty kings and rulers of ancient and powerful nations.  King Lear was just such a man, with a white beard and a steadfast gaze, the lines of his face counting the years.  He was proud and majestic, satisfied with all he had done, and what he wanted most of all was a simple and peaceful end to his reign.

King Lear felt that the time had come to cast off the burden of his responsibilities and to pass them on to the next generation.  Having devoted his whole life to the affairs of state, it was time to step aside and allow others with more energy and desire to rule his kingdom.  It was time to divide up his land so that he could spend his final years on earth in peace.

Proud father to three beautiful and worthy daughters, King Lear had decided to bestow his kingdom and fortune upon them.  So that they could rule as queens with an equal share, he would give a third to each of his trusted and much-loved daughters.  Thus the old King summoned his lords, ladies, courtiers, attendants and followers so that he could make known his intentions.  (pp.1-2)

I have a quibble about the sentence in the second paragraph that begins ‘Having devoted his whole life to the affairs of state, it was time…’ The subject of the sentence is ‘time’ not ‘he’ or ‘the king’, so the clause that begins ‘having devoted’ is a dangling clause that relates to a person never specified in the sentence. Any competent editor should have picked that up, and so should the professor of English who endorses the book in the Preface.   However, overall I enjoyed the way the story is presented, and I think young people would too.  Importantly, the text is probably more readable for the contemporary teenager who would be flummoxed by Lamb’s fourscore — though that does beg the question: at what stage does making a text easy for a teenager to read, prevent them from encountering unfamiliar words and concepts?  Or should we just relax a bit and accept that even if the teenager never moves on to the real thing, they have through this and other ‘introductory’ versions, been exposed to Shakespeare’s ideas and world view — and that accomplishes the aim of teaching them about the unchanging flaws in human nature.

What do you think?

Image credit: Romeo and Juliet at the Cell of Friar Lawrence, by Arthur Rackham (1909), in Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (Wikipedia:

Title: King Lear, an illustrated edition in modern prose
Adapted by Michael J Stewart
Illustrated by Pavel Tartarnikov
Publisher: Millenium Shakespeare series, Wine Dark Press, UK, 2006
ISBN: 9780953600410
Source: Kingston Library

For more information about the series, click here.


  1. A fascinating post! Thank you. Have you ever read Just Macbeth by Andy Griffiths?


    • No, I haven’t. That would be a children’s book?


  2. I would say I’m a purist, but then I’ve read and seen very little Shakespeare, JC in fourth form, that was about it. One of my favourite movies is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet which retains the original language (I think it does, how would I know?). But on the other hand I had some pretty old fashioned books as a child, and I came to Don Quixote and Gullivers Travels for instance through retellings, though still very wordy. I give my grandkids 10 or 12 books every year and I haven’t really considered giving them these sort of books but Mr 10 got both The Iliad, and 1984 as graphic novels this Christmas and I might look at the Lamb series.


    • The Spouse never got on with Shakespeare but has enjoyed a couple of Bell Shakespeare productions so I live in hope.
      And I do love being able to talk about the themes of human frailty with him.


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